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Early 1960s modernist house in Guelph, Ont., designed by local architect Richard Pagani. (Dave LeBlanc)
Early 1960s modernist house in Guelph, Ont., designed by local architect Richard Pagani. (Dave LeBlanc)

Eye-catching, barrel-vault roof sets this modernist house apart Add to ...

It started with a little brochure landing on a desk.

The desk belonged to Guelph, Ont., architect Richard (Dick) Pagani. The brochure, which caught the young man’s eye, illustrated how to build an eye-catching barrel-vault roof. Put out by the Fir Plywood Institute of Canada, the hope was to get architects interested in innovative uses for British Columbia wood products, and it worked, as it was carefully filed away by the Guelph native for future use.

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It was the late 1950s and adventure was in the air.

Although Mr. Pagani had graduated only a few years before, his confidence was high: At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture, then run by Modernist master Pietro Belluschi, he’d been taught by the very best; in addition, he’d been raised by a father, Dario, who’d been building homes for decades.

So, when it came time to design and build the family home for his new bride, Yvonne, and the first of their three children, Dick Pagani decided on the plywood barrel-vault, despite it being rather rare in domestic applications.

“When this was under construction, people were asking, ‘Is it a synagogue or a gas station?’” Yvonne Pagani says with a laugh, recalling the sawdusty months leading up to the May, 1962, move into the Evergreen Drive home.

It wasn’t easy to build, either: Mrs. Pagani, now widowed, remembers her father-in-law “tearing his hair out” during visits to see his grandchild before continuing on to the construction site a few blocks away. “I don’t think there was a day that he came by that he didn’t say, ‘Why can’t Dick put a plain, ordinary roof on the house?!’”

Mrs. Pagani, who has lived in Queenston, Ont., since 1967, when job opportunities brought the family to the Niagara region, has returned to meet one of the home’s current owners, University of Guelph professor Dr. Georgia Mason … and to see how that legendary roof is holding up.

Yes, there have been some water-penetration issues, says Dr. Mason, but she and her husband, Dr. Jonathan Newman, also a University of Guelph professor, have had an additional layer of spray-foam applied and all is well.

The face of the massive brick fireplace has been painted white to hide water stains, and the couple has rolled over practically every other surface as well, since when they purchased it in 2004 every wall was painted a different colour. All white, says Dr. Mason, makes the space feel “like an art gallery.”

“Then, I think, the shape of the roof is what you focus on.”

Despite the way it funnels natural light deep into the interior, or how it becomes a neighbourhood beacon at night, it’s not all about the roof. It’s also about Mr. Pagani’s towering foyer, with floors made from Mies van der Rohe’s favourite material, travertine, and a sculptural staircase that sits, trophy-like, in the middle of the space. It’s about an identical fireplace on the lower level, where windows are so large it cannot possibly be called a basement. And then there’s the separate, flat-roofed bedroom wing, which surely gave peace and quiet to the Paganis when they were entertaining.

All of these, says Dr. Mason, convinced her to abandon the search for a downtown Victorian when she moved from Oxford to occupy the Canada Research Chair in Animal Welfare at the university in 2004. She also didn’t mind that the house had been designated a heritage building two years before: “I thought it was cool, actually,” she offers.

“It didn’t seem daunting [because] the things that were protected were things we liked anyway.”

That designation (the first Modernist building in Guelph to be so honoured) includes portions of the interior as well, such as the Pagani-designed kitchen cabinets (plus hardware), the open floor plan, certain light fixtures, and the large window- and door-openings. This thoroughness can be attributed to the home’s former owners, who started the heritage ball rolling shortly after they purchased in 2000.

Besides, Dr. Mason knew about the era. In homes she’d rented back in Britain (this is her first time as a homeowner), she’d labelled her kitchen the “kitsch-en” for the jumble of “giant plastic lemons and ridiculous old mixers that looked like rockets” on display.

“Some of that had to go when we moved in because it just didn’t quite fit,” she says, laughing. “This house is more grown-up.”

Despite the adult nature of the architecture, childlike laughter fills the air as Mrs. Pagani and her daughter Suzanne Ruginis are taken on a tour of the house, which now includes an exterior enclosure for two kittens (they come inside when they wish), a front deck that incorporates a gas barbeque – a progressive 1960s architect would never have put that feature in the public front yard – and the conversion of the lower-level family room into a shared office.

Mrs. Pagani repays this by outlining which features are original and which aren’t, and by sharing silly stories of slobbery old “Gus the Dog,” who lived in a custom doghouse with a single barrel-vault roof in the backyard. Much of the conversation, of course, centres on Mr. Pagani’s career (he died in 2004), which included other residential stunners, some just a few houses away, others a few kilometres (one, at 6 Tobey Ave., is worth a look), plus schools, retail stores, office buildings and churches.

Mighty friendships from little brochures grow?

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